Cigarette Makers Hit With $10 Million Verdict
A Broward County, Florida, jury awarded $10 million in damages against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Philip Morris USA Inc., for the wrongful death of a woman who died three months after being diagnosed with cancer.
Jurors found that Dorothy Milinkovich died from lung cancer and COPD caused by an addiction to the tobacco companies’ cigarettes. The case was tried by the Schlesinger Law Firm on behalf of Mrs. Milinkovich’s daughter, Deborah Neff.
“For generations, the tobacco industry used lies and deception to hook people into cigarette addiction. This time, the next generation held them accountable,” said Scott Schlesinger, who along with attorneys Stephen J. Hammer, Jonathan Gdanski and Brittany Chambers, represented Ms. Neff, Dorothy Milinkovich’s sole surviving heir. “This woman’s daughter bravely confronted cigarette makers for creating a powerfully addictive product that hooked her mother and eventually killed her.”
The jury awarded $4 million in compensatory damages for Ms. Neff, and $6 million in punitive damages. The jury found that Milinkovich was addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine and that addiction led to her lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema. They also found that Ms. Milinkovich relied on statements made by the companies that concealed or omitted information related to cigarettes’ addictive nature.
Dorothy “Dot” Milinkovich was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on May 12, 1923. She began smoking at 14; at the peak of her addiction to nicotine, Mrs. Milinkovich was smoking three packs a day. In 1952, she and her husband moved to Miami. In 1959, they settled with their three children in Hollywood.
In September 1994, Ms. Milinkovich wasn’t feeling well and went to her doctor. She was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and COPD. The cancer had spread to her brain, bones, and other organs. She was inoperable and incurable. She died in December 1994.
Though defense attorneys tried to blame Ms. Milinkovich for her illness and death, the evidence pointed to the cigarette makers. The nicotine in their product began changing the young brain in 14-year-old Dot, and by adulthood, she was deeply addicted. Filters and “low tar” cigarettes did little to slow her habit. “They were just falsely reassuring,” Schlesinger said.
Even the companies’ marketing lured in smokers. Using “Raleigh coupons” earned with each pack she would buy of the brand, Ms. Milinkovich eventually traded them for a rocking horse for her children. In a perverse way, that rocker was for the “replacement smoker” who would eventually replace the smoker who bought it, Schlesinger said.
Though raised with that rocker that she passed down to her kids, Ms. Neff lost all affection for it when the truth came out. “She learned it wasn’t something to be cherished,” Schlesinger recalled Ms. Neff saying. “It was a symbol of the cigarette companies’ deception.”
Comforted in a quilt as she lay in her daughter’s Oakland Park home, Ms. Milinkovich died of metastatic lung cancer in December 1994. Deborah was at her side, as she had been for the last three months of her mother’s life.
“She was there when I took my first breath,” Ms. Neff testified at trial, that same quilt close by. “So I was there when she took her last.”
Ms. Milinkovich’s case is one of thousands of similar “Engle progeny” cases stemming from the Florida Supreme Court overturning a $145 billion verdict against the companies. The court also ruled plaintiffs – numbering close to 700,000 – could use findings from that case to file future lawsuits against tobacco companies.
Schlesinger Law Firm is lead counsel in the national multi-district litigation against Reynolds Natural American Spirit cigarette, which is pending in the federal district court in New Mexico. The lawsuit was brought under the False and Deceptive Unfair Trade Practices Act. Now, other firms and plaintiffs around the country have joined to stop the spread of “organic natural” cigarettes.